5 Dark Secrets You Never Noticed About Sesame Street
In an attempt to spread awareness about children with autism, Sesame Street And Autism: See Amazing In All Children will add a new character: Julia will star alongside Elmo, who helps explain her condition to other characters (and therefore to all the children watching at home). Though I'm not entirely sold on Elmo's medical education, I still think it's a pretty awesome idea.
The thing is, this isn't the first time Sesame Street has utilized characters with disorders. Those have been around since day one; they just never pointed them out. Understand that when I talk about the following characters, I'm in no way making fun of their disabilities. Far from it. I'm saying that if you grew up with Sesame Street, you learned about these things without even knowing it. For instance ...
Cookie Monster Has Full-Blown Binge-Eating Disorder
Before you say, "Yeah, no shit," give me a second, because this is a whole lot darker than a goofy puppet going apeshit on a plate of cookies in order to make toddlers laugh. Cookie Monster has the most common eating disorder in the U.S. (more common than both anorexia and bulimia). Binge-eating disorder is characterized as a lack of self-control while eating more food, faster than normal, even when not feeling physically hungry, until uncomfortably satiated.
Cookie Monster easily ticks all those boxes. He eats way too much, way too fast, even though he never complains of being hungry beforehand -- he just needs to eat as many cookies as possible because "they are important" to him.
Binge-eating is usually done in secret, and that shows up quite a bit on Sesame Street, as the majority of Cookie Monster's freak-out scenes are done solo. Notice in the above video that he doesn't dive straight in until the other character leaves the room. That doesn't happen every time, but it happens enough to be considered a symptom.
It's not his fault. He's not just a greedy, gluttonous asshole who hogs all the food. There are many reasons why Cookie Monster might binge-eat: a chemical imbalance in the brain, genetics, severe emotional or physical trauma. I could definitely see that last one happening after he ate Ernie's X and later had to pass Styrofoam through his poor monster butthole.
Unfortunately, Cookie Monster's condition is worsened by the way the other characters react to his behavior. They either try to take the cookies away from him, even though food restrictions actually promote binge-eating (found at 22:00 in the following video), or they give him cookies as a reward for completing a task successfully (12:00 in the same video):
It's essential that Cookie Monster learns the underlying emotional reasons why he turns to food for help, along with coping strategies to use when he becomes emotionally distressed. Cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavior therapy, internal family systems, and trauma therapy have all shown promise in doing this. What does not help at all is people clearly enabling his behavior while he lets his disorder completely dictate and obliterate his emotions. Seriously, watch this video, and you will see Cookie Monster in a completely different light:
The Count Has Severe Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder
This is another one that seems obvious on the surface, but it's not just a cute little observation. "He counts things, so he's OCD. LOL!" No, The Count's affliction is so severe that he cannot function without outside help. Even a minor task like answering the telephone is so impossible for him, he has to hire Ernie to do it for him. Even then, he physically prevents Ernie from doing his job, because the impulse to count the rings is too much for him to overcome.
And speaking of jobs, his OCD prevents him from having one himself. When he got a job as an elevator operator, he flat-out refused to stop at any floor but the 10th, as he absolutely has to count all the way to 10 and back again. He's restricted to a shut-in life, locked away in his castle, away from the outside world. Look at his room in the telephone video above. See all those cobwebs and dust? That isn't there because they're trying to make the place look all spooky and vampirey. Those are there because The Count can't control his compulsions long enough to do basic cleaning.
"ONE! One devastating mental illness!"
This is a very common symptom of OCD. Now, I know that a lot of people think that ordering your pants by day of the week or having all your books on your shelf ordered alphabetically is "a bit OCD," but it's not. That's just a little weird. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is a far more debilitating condition than many realize.
Let's start with the "obsessive" part. The obsession in question is repetitive, unwanted thoughts, such as fear of contamination, being harmed, or, as would be the case with The Count, unwanted acts of aggression. The Count is a goddamn vampire. He must fight a constant desire to tear Elmo's throat out and feed on his blood (don't we all?). By enduring these endless and unwelcome obsessions, the sufferer is forced onto the next stage: being compulsive.
The most common compulsions include excessive cleaning, checking, ordering and arranging rituals, repeating routine activities, and counting. The sad thing is, this compulsive, repetitive behavior is meant to alleviate any anxiety caused by those pesky obsessive thoughts, but, in many cases, only exacerbates it.
And that means the violent disembowelment of our red furry friend.
Another hallmark of OCD is that the person recognizes that their thoughts or behaviors are senseless or excessive. The Count fits the bill again. Listen to his warnings to Ernie in the telephone video. He knows that what he is doing is contrary to the way he is expected to behave. He even apologizes (or at least explains himself), but he continues to do it anyway. He needs genuine therapy. Or at least someone a lot bigger than Ernie who can physically tackle him and answer that goddamn phone.
Telly Has Social Anxiety Disorder
In his first episode, Telly Monster was more obsessed with TV than Cookie Monster is with stuffing food in his hairy suckhole. He spent his whole first episode with his nose no more than three inches from the screen, ignoring everyone around him and shushing them like an asshole when they tried to communicate.
This is important because Sesame Street eventually changed his character, and what happened after that transformation is Psychology 101. He became overwhelmed with anxiety to the point that he was often visibly shaking. In the beginning, that television was his comfort zone. It's what kept him calm, by distracting him from the rest of the world. He was not just escaping his problems -- he was walling himself off from the rest of the world because he knew what happened to him when he tried to interact with other people. That's because Telly has a fairly extreme case of social anxiety disorder.
He shows all of the classic symptoms: nervousness, self-doubt, twitchiness, trembling, constant embarrassment, fear of judgment. And those symptoms manifest every time he comes in contact with another person (or puppet). Take a look at what happens when he tries to get a job that involves interacting with customers:
That poor bastard looks like he's about to have a heart attack. Kermit is so concerned with Telly's behavior that he forces the sale, even though he is the customer. I'm convinced that the only reason Kermit did that was because he was afraid that Telly would be a pretty depressing headline in the next day's paper. And we know that he is capable of harming himself or others because his reaction to a penguin taking his "Triangle Guy" superhero costume was a bit over the top:
In that scene, Telly is so mad that the penguin stole his costume, that he decides to beat the shit out of him. That's not the abnormal part. When his friend Gina asks him to consider why that's a bad idea, he doesn't just stop at "the penguin can get hurt." He falls into a daydream about being arrested, going to court, being found guilty of assault, and being sentenced to five years in prison. The daydream is so powerful that he thinks it's real. Gina has to explain that it isn't. His neurosis was so in charge of his thought process that it blocked out the rest of the world in an instant. It effectively removed him from reality.
Those last symptoms aren't typical of social anxiety disorder, but they do show how severe his fear has gotten. How desperate he is to escape reality and wall himself off from the rest of the world. And those are far from the only examples. Look up virtually any video with Telly in it, and you'll get a clinic in social phobia. Hell, some of them are so bad, they drop right into manic depression territory. He desperately needs to be on medication, because he's going to end up hurting someone. There are way too many kids there for him to just roam around unmedicated like that.
Oscar The Grouch Has Antisocial Personality Disorder
You know your character is antisocial when you call him The Grouch. In fact, the only reason he's not called "Oscar The Dickhead" is because kids are watching. To be fair, living in a trash can and being shunned by most of polite society would turn anyone sour, but Oscar's pessimism is deeper than simply being jealous of what others have. He's a full-blown sociopath.
Grouch performs an important narrative function on Sesame Street: giving an alternative view to the perennially optimistic superstars Big Bird and Elmo. He also serves as the butt of lessons on how to deal with assholes ... which may actually be the most important lesson ever taught on a kids' show.
"You're welcome, dipshits."
All right, fair enough, but Oscar is always grouchy. It doesn't matter what nice acts the others perform for him, or the fact that, despite being a horrible, smelly bastard he somehow has a girlfriend (the horrible and smelly Grundgetta). He is never content, not unless he is fucking up someone else's day. And that right there is the core of the problem: He makes other people miserable on purpose.
He is callous, mean, irresponsible, and completely apathetic about how society expects him to behave. He clearly has antisocial personality disorder. Those with the disorder frequently "lack empathy and tend to be callous, cynical, and contemptuous of the feelings, rights, and sufferings of others."
Watch him tease Cookie Monster (whom we know is dealing with an eating disorder) while teaching Today's Letter:
Oscar is so content in torturing him by keeping the cookie out of reach, he's probably touching himself inside that trashcan. Compare that with how angry he is after Cookie Monster finally gets the cookie. He acts as if his whole world just collapsed. It's not just that Oscar doesn't give a shit about peoples' feelings. It's that he derives a sadistic enjoyment out of their pain. In fact, being a dick to others is the only thing that makes him happy. Well, aside from dirt and trash, but those are just material things. I'm sure he has a dog turd collection that brings him great pride and joy.
Mr. Snuffleupagus Has A Crippling Inferiority Complex
Mr. Snuffleupagus -- "Snuffy" if you're nasty -- is a giant woolly mammoth living in an urban American environment. Nothing weird about that. What is weird, though, is that for an animal so big, he feels so insecure about himself.
Inferiority complex, as I'm sure you all know, is "a feeling of inadequacy stemming from either real or imaginary sources." The thing about Mr. Snuffleupagus is that his complex has a very real origin that we can see.
At the beginning of his career, there was a running joke about Snuffleupagus in which he was never seen by adults. They'd always juuuust miss seeing him at the last second. This caused a lot of viewers (and adult characters) to speculate that he was Big Bird's imaginary friend. Sesame Street kept this up for 14 years.
In 1985, they finally introduced him to the rest of the cast, and everyone saw that he was real. But imagine that for a second. For a decade and a half, even when you made active attempts to meet people, no one on Earth knows that you exist. Imagine what that would do to you, mentally.
It broke Snuffy.
While the feelings of inadequacy are often subconscious, Inferiority complex often compels its victims to overcompensate so that those suffering from this condition may withdraw completely from their social circle, or, as is the case with Mr. Snuffleupagus, go to the other extreme of continuously seeking out attention from their peers. From 1971 to 1985, that was virtually every sketch that involved Snuffy.
Inferiority complex is not created overnight. It is a result of a series of events where someone is treated repeatedly as though they are irrelevant. Getting over it is not easy. And while Mr. Snuffleupagus can now interact with other characters, the damage has already been done. Listen to his song "Nobody," which includes such depressing lyrics as:
Nobody seems to want me
Though I wish on stars above
I guess I'll just go back to my house
And make believe I'm love.
Oh, and one last note, for those still skeptical of whether Sesame Street intended for these characters to be what I've just described: They are all named after their problem. Cookie Monster and Telly Monster are named after their addictions, whereas The Count and Grouch are the symptoms of their respective disorders. Hell, even the name Snuffleupagus is a nightmare. "Snuffle" refers to his nasally voice and his trunk but also means to whine/complain. And the suffix -pagus? That comes from a word meaning "malformed conjoined twins." As in: "You are the complaining, malformed twin of Big Bird."
I just hope they go a little less dark with the new Julia character.
This isn't the first time puppet type characters have had some questionable motives. We're not saying it's a definite, but you'll be shocked at the Muppet - 9//11 connection when you read 5 Signs The Muppets Caused 9/11: Crazy But Convincing Theory and read about the lost 'Sesame Street' episode that probably traumatized some kids in 7 Amazing Works of Pop Cullture That Have Been Lost Forever.
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